25 Best Films of the 1910sby Cineanalyst | created - 01 Jul 2013 | updated - 4 days ago | Public
These are my favorite films from the period 1910-1919. The 1910s are an interesting time in film history. Feature-length pictures became the norm, and Hollywood emerged to dominate the market, while the First World War devastated the European movie industry. Read my reviews on IMDb for more on what I enjoyed about these films. URLs are posted at the bottom of the films' summaries in this list.
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1. The Birth of a Nation (1915)
Not Rated | 195 min | Drama, History, War
The Stoneman family finds its friendship with the Camerons affected by the Civil War, both fighting in opposite armies. The development of the war in their lives plays through to Lincoln's assassination and the birth of the Ku Klux Klan.
Votes: 19,348 | Gross: $10.00M
The most influential and controversial film ever made. It changed the course of film as an art and as an industry; the first epic to feature innovative technique and mastery to match, especially in camerwork and editing (which were sorely lacking in the earlier Italian epics such as "Cabiria"). It broke box-office records and helped launch Hollywood. It's racist and perverted depiction of the Civil War and Reconstruction eras inspired the revival of the Ku Klux Klan, as well as becoming the cause célèbre for early campaigns by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.
2. Posle smerti (1915)
46 min | Drama
Andrei lives a secluded life with his aunt, studying and thinking about his now-deceased mother. His friend Tsenin is concerned, and tries to get Andrei to accompany him to social events. ... See full summary »
Yevgeni Bauer isn't as well known as D.W. Griffith (the director of the above "The Birth of a Nation," but, perhaps, he should be, because this Russian filmmaker was his equal. This stylistically and technically innovative haunting tragedy is his masterpiece. An impressive three-minutes-long tracking shot is a highlight.
Not Rated | 197 min | Drama, History
The story of a poor young woman, separated by prejudice from her husband and baby, is interwoven with tales of intolerance from throughout history.
Votes: 12,147 | Gross: $2.18M
D.W. Griffith's apology for "The Birth of a Nation" (and the word "apology" is not used in the sense that he was sorry), "Intolerance" features a groudbreaking narrative structure and rapid montage, crosscutting between four separate, but thematically linked, stories from different periods and places in history.
4. The Cameraman's Revenge (1912)
Not Rated | 12 min | Animation, Short, Comedy
A jilted husband takes his revenge by filming his wife and her lover and showing the result at the local cinema. This was one of Starewicz' first animated films, and stars very realistic ... See full summary »
Director: Wladyslaw Starewicz
Easily the best ever one-reel meta-film starring insects. It's literally a small movie, but it's lampooning of cinema and human foibles is hilarious and insightful.
74 min | Documentary, War
Documentary (with some re-enacted footage) of the British army's participation in the Battle of the Somme in France during World War I.
The best example of the emergence of the feature-length documentary film in the wake of government's desire for wartime propaganda. The staged "over the top" shot has been a source of contention and consideration for critics and film theorists ever since, but the film is actually quite remarkable for the war footage daringly captured on film, as well as for the film's edited construction.
6. Umirayushchii lebed (1917)
49 min | Drama
A grief-stricken ballerina becomes the obsession of an increasingly unhinged artist.
Bauer's films aren't only technically brilliant for their time, they're emotionally involving due to their subject matter, including obsessions with art, death and dreams. All of which are featured in this silent film about a mute dancer who is painted by an artist trying to capture her in a death pose.
7. J'accuse! (1919)
Not Rated | 166 min | Drama, Horror, War
The story of two men, one married, the other the lover of the other's wife, who meet in the trenches of the First World War, and how their tale becomes a microcosm for the horrors of war.
Abel Gance's Impressionistic anti-war picture is most poignant on the homefront, instead of the trenches of the Great War, including an allegorical love triangle and a haunting finale.
8. Behind the Screen (1916)
TV-G | 30 min | Short, Comedy, Romance
Charlie is an overworked labourer at a film studio who helps a young woman find work even while his coworkers strike against his tyrannical boss.
Every Chaplin Mutual short is enjoyable, but this one's my favorite--not least because its humor is found in the business of making movies. Chaplin's then-regular co-stars also stand out: Eric Campbell as Goliath to Charlie's David and Edna Purviance crossdressing to get a job at the movie studio.
9. The Cheat (1915)
Not Rated | 59 min | Drama
A venal, spoiled stockbroker's wife impulsively embezzles $10,000 from the charity she chairs and desperately turns to a Burmese ivory trader to replace the stolen money.
The story is yellow-peril tripe, but the groundbreaking "Rembrandt lighting" (low-key or dark lighting) and set designs are must see. This was a significant step in Hollywood's transition from relying upon natural lighting, to experimenting with artificial lighting within closed, indoor sets.
Not Rated | 90 min | Drama, Romance
A frail waif, abused by her brutal boxer father in London's seedy Limehouse District, is befriended by a sensitive Chinese immigrant with tragic consequences.
D.W. Griffith and his cinematographer Billy Bitzer reign preeminent in this era, but "Broken Blossoms" owes its brilliance more to its two leads (Lillian Gish and Richard Barthelmess) and even owes its technical brilliance largely to another genius, Hendrik Sartov. Sartov's innovation was in the camera lens' ability to sharpen, blur and gloss over images. A controlled studio environment was instrumental for this, which also demonstrates the important influence of the above film, "The Cheat."
11. Herr Arnes pengar (1919)
Not Rated | 122 min | Drama, History
Three Scottish officers, including Sir Archi, murder Sir Arne and his household for a coffin filled with gold. The only survivor is Elsalill, who moves to relatives in Marstrand. There she ... See full summary »
Fate and nature. Nobody captured the inescapability and forces of nature better than the Swedish filmmakers Mauritz Stiller (of this film) and Victor Sjöström (of the next film on the list). The characters' desperation is represented well by a ship, literally, locked in a frozen sea.
12. Terje Vigen (1917)
Not Rated | 48 min | Drama, War
Terje Vigen, a sailor, suffers the loss of his family through the cruelty of another man. Years later, when his enemy's family finds itself dependent on Terje's beneficence, Terje must ... See full summary »
Ironic that a film featuring Sjöström in a losing battle against nature and for his soul is really such an economically-innovative picture manipulated by the same man when behind the camera. These Swedish movies are all about people losing their minds in harsh weather. So beautiful, though.
13. True Heart Susie (1919)
87 min | Comedy, Drama, Romance
Susie, a plain young country girl, secretly loves a neighbor boy, William. She believes in him and sacrifices much of her own happiness to promote his own ambitions, all without his ... See full summary »
D.W. Griffith's rural coming-of-age melodrama might be his most emotionally-engaging film. It's well made, but it's really the acting that's responsible for that. Robert Harron and Clarine Seymour give the best performances of their unfortunately short lives (both died the next year). Above all, however, is the amazing Lillian Gish. Fortunately, she lived until she was 99 years old--giving us many such wonderful performances.
14. Easy Street (1917)
Unrated | 24 min | Short, Comedy
A reformed tramp becomes a police constable who must fight a huge thug who dominates an inner city street.
Another great Chaplin short comedy. "Easy Street" manages to remain hilarious--and even almost cartoonish--amidst what would otherwise be harsh depictions of poverty. Never has a slum been so easy on the eyes--and the humors.
15. The Sinking of the 'Lusitania' (1918)
TV-PG | 12 min | Animation, Short
An animated dramatization of the notorious World War I German torpedoing of the ocean liner, Lusitania.
Director: Winsor McCay
Winsor McCay far outdid "Gertie the Dinosaur" with this haunting amimated propaganda piece. Whereas the Dinosaur was a cute cartoon, the animation here was more devastatingly realistic than anything live-action filmmakers of the day could've created. The film has since been cited as an early example of the so-called, if seemingly oxymoronic, genre of "animated documentary."
16. Barney Oldfield's Race for a Life (1913)
13 min | Comedy, Short
Virtuous Mabel rejects the improper advances of a villainous cad. The furious villain and his henchmen then seize Mabel and chain her to a railroad track. Mabel's anxious boyfriend turns ... See full summary »
Bumbling cops, dastardly mustached villain, damsel in distress tied to railroad tracks, and the race against time to save her. It's all comedy cliché now, but in 1913, Mack Sennett was introducing a new form of parody to cinema. Before you view this Keystone short, watch a few of D.W. Griffith's Biograph last-minute-rescue short films. Then the parody is quite rewarding, for mercilessly poking fun at what had just become dramatic clichés.
17. When the Clouds Roll by (1919)
85 min | Action, Comedy, Romance
Psychiatrist Dr. Ulrich Metz attempts to drive Daniel Brown to suicide.
A couple of offbeat pictures also happen to be Douglas Fairbanks's best films. Here, Doug's exuberance takes an anti-Freudian turn. And although at one point he finds himself trying to survive a flood from a dam break, his biggest battles are against his own subconscious anxieties, including in a wonderful dream sequence where Doug is chased by performers dressed as food.
18. The Mystery of the Leaping Fish (1916)
Not Rated | 25 min | Comedy, Short
Coke Ennyday, the scientific detective, divides his own time in periods for "Sleep", "Eat", "Dope" and "Drink". In fact he's used to overcome every situation with drugs: consuming it to ... See full summary »
This is that other offbeat Douglas Fairbanks vehicle--and I mean really offbeat. It has the distinction of being one of the most delightfully weird comedies ever. Doug is a Sherlock Holmes parody drug fiend who foils a plot by drug dealers to smuggle drugs.
19. Madame DuBarry (1919)
Not Rated | 85 min | Biography, Drama
The story of Madame DuBarry, the mistress of Louis XV of France, and her loves in the time of the French revolution.
Among the most influential mainstream commercial films ever made, "Madame DuBarry" seems oddly forgotten today. It was the first film to receive widespread foreign release after nations lifted their WWI-era bans on the importation of German films. Director Ernst Lubitsch seems to have discovered classical Hollywood continuity editing overnight, which before this film was largely absent in German cinema. The film's popularity led to Lubitsch's emigration to the USA (as well as the emigration of Lubitsch regulars like Emil Jannings and Pola Negri), where he accomplished the unprecedented and still unduplicated distinction of having been the premiere director in two big movie-producing countries. This is the pinnacle of Ernst Lubitsch's pseudo-historical epics.
20. The Doll (1919)
Not Rated | 48 min | Comedy, Fantasy
Because the Baron of Chanterelle wants to preserve his family line, he forces his timid nephew Lancelot to choose one of the village maidens to wed. Lancelot flees to a monastery to escape ... See full summary »
And "The Doll" is the best example of the German comedies made by Ernst Lubitsch, as well as of those starring Ossi Oswalda. Artificial settings and flat backdrops aptly set the stage for a narrative that begs the question of what is real and is all about characters and objects that either masquerade as more lifelike or less so--resulting in an amusing doubling theme.
21. Hypocrites (1915)
Passed | 54 min | Drama
The parallel stories of a modern preacher and a medieval monk, Gabriel the Ascetic, who is killed by an ignorant mob for making a nude statue representing Truth, which is also represented by a ghostly naked girl who flits throughout the film.
Lois Weber challenged my expectations of the art of film with this one. The narrative features the most egregious moralizing and is almost devoid of entertainment value (besides the then controversy of nudity on screen). Beneath the sermon, however, Weber recognized, perhaps better than any of her contemporaries, that film is art and this is both profoundly evident and allusive here. Look for the "mote in the eye" scene.
22. The Poor Little Rich Girl (1917)
Not Rated | 65 min | Comedy, Drama, Family
The wealthy but selfish parents of a lonely young girl begin to rethink what is important to them after a servant's irresponsibility results in a crisis.
The movie that made Mary Pickford "America's Sweetheart." OK, she was already a star even by 1917, but this is the film that cemented her career trajectory of playing childhood and coming-of-age roles (despite obviously being a full-grown woman). This was also directed by one the best filmmakers of the 1910s, Maurice Tourneur. And, the film was the beginning of an important partnership between Pickford and screenwriter Fraces Marion. Together, they changed film history.
23. Frankenstein (1910)
Unrated | 16 min | Short, Horror, Sci-Fi
Frankenstein, a young medical student, trying to create the perfect human being, instead creates a misshapen monster. Made ill by what he has done, Frankenstein is comforted by his fiancée ... See full summary »
This was once believed to be a lost film, and the one known remaining print remained unseen by the public for years. Especially for a short Edison Company film from 1910, this is a tremendous find. It's not a straightforward telling of Mary Shelly's "Frankenstein," but, instead, incorporates a doppelgänger theme similar to "Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde" and "The Student of Prague" films. A self-referential mirror motif tops it off.
24. Wagon Tracks (1919)
Not Rated | 64 min | Western
Buckskin Hamilton guides a wagon train across the wasteland, caring well for the pioneers he escorts, but hoping to solve the murder of his brother by one of the travellers.
I had to include a William S. Hart Western on this list, and this one features probably his most challenging role, as well as some beautiful landscapes. In one scene, Hart cries for an extended period of time, which for those who've seen many of Hart's other incarnations of the good badman cowboy (e.g. "Hell's Hinges"), may come as a bit of a shock.
25. Moonshine (1918)
23 min | Comedy, Short
A feud between the Owens and the Gillettes ends when the last remaining Gillette is killed, but new trouble erupts for the mountain folk with the arrival of a U.S. revenue agent and his ... See full summary »
And, finally, what would this list be without a Fatty Arbuckle comedy. Here, Fatty and Buster Keaton demolish the fourth wall.